Mary Michal, MD,’60, may have entered Vanderbilt University School of Medicine by mistake, but she’s remained devoted to its mission by design.
Born in western North Carolina, in the heart of Pisgah National Forest and at the foot of Cold Mountain, Michal’s childhood comprised hard work, tending to the garden that fed the family and to the purebred cattle that had been on their property since the 1840s.
“We had to carry water from a spring at the bottom of the hill. We went down with an empty bucket and came up with a full one. It wasn’t very fun, but it helped us have water available to cook. We cooked on a wood stove, so I carried wood in on a regular basis,” Michal recalled, dotting her sentences with her trademark chuckle.
“I learned to make a bed early, gathered eggs. We grew all of our own food essentially, with the exception of sugar and a few things like that. We had a garden, we had an orchard, we had the cattle, pigs, goats, lambs. We didn’t have electricity until I was 6 years old. It was an experience, believe me.”
Michal’s mother, also named Mary, was a Yale University-trained physician and her father Joe was a Southern farmer. Together they raised two children.
“I was determined from the get-go that I was going to be a doctor,” Michal said. When asked how she ended up at Vanderbilt, she replied, “By mistake.”
“I applied to three medical schools. I was accepted to my second and third choices, and the deadline was approaching, and I got an acceptance letter from Vanderbilt. I had never been to Nashville before, but Mama took me down, and we found a place where I could room.
“On the first day of class, we were in a big auditorium with the VIPs down in front of us. The medical students were sitting in the raised seats. All these VIPs welcomed us to Vanderbilt. One of them got up and made the usual, delightful remarks welcoming us to medical school. He said there was one person who had been admitted by mistake, and everyone’s looking at each other, and thinking, ‘I’m glad that’s not I.’ He never did say my name, but said there was one student who was never interviewed [by the admissions committee].
“I was never interviewed,” she said with a giggle. “It was never brought up again and they certainly didn’t send me back home. I just wanted to melt right through the floor.”
Michal was one of just five women to graduate in the medical school’s class of 1960. Amos Christie, MD, was chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the time. When Michal did her third-year rotation in Pediatrics, she discovered the type of physician she wanted to be.
“I just felt like I had arrived. Medicine seemed like a complicated thing…there’s so much history from the adults, and the children were so interactive. Amos Christie was such a phenomenal physician — a superb clinician, but also just a very special person. He was my idol.”
She did her first residency year at Vanderbilt, her second at the University of Washington in Seattle and her third at the University of Colorado in Denver. With the support and encouragement of a psychiatry professor who had taken on a mentor role, Michal did a year of fellowship at the University of Colorado.
“That was special. There was no developmental-behavioral pediatric residency at that point in the country. It wasn’t a known subspecialty. Children and their variability drew me to it. Siblings aren’t alike, not as a rule. Twins can be mighty similar and siblings can have similarities. [But] children are so different and they learn differently. Some kids pick up things easily and some are very slow at learning.”
Michal served as director of the regional health office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in Denver and as the director of school health in the Jefferson County school system, the largest in Colorado, before relocating to Johnson City, Tennessee, at the request of F. Michael Shepard, MD, a 1959 VUSM graduate who was the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine.
She dedicated the rest of her career to the care and keeping of children with learning disabilities, behavior problems and attention deficit disorder before retiring in April 2016 at the age of 81.
“I retired not because I didn’t like what I was doing, but because I needed to slow down a little bit. We tried for an extended period of time to recruit a replacement. There just aren’t enough trainees to fill the holes,” Michal explained. “Quillen needs a developmental behavioral pediatrician, and I didn’t want to leave my patients and the area without those skills if I could avoid it, but I couldn’t avoid it because there wasn’t anybody.”
Reflecting her commitment to children with special needs and to address the dearth of specialists, Michal established an endowed fellowship in the Department of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
She recently traveled from Johnson City to Vanderbilt to meet with Michal fellows Katelyn Neely, MD, and Marcos Colon, MD.
“I truly appreciate Dr. Michal’s generosity, as her donation has allowed me to fulfill my childhood career goals. Having this fellowship at VUMC allows me to obtain comprehensive training in a location that is close to my family in Western Kentucky,” Neely said.
“I have been interested in developmental pediatrics since I was a child. I grew up with a younger sibling with autism, and she regularly saw physicians at VUMC. Seeing the significant improvement on her quality of life after working with a developmental pediatrician inspired my interest in medicine.”
Tyler Reimschisel, MD, director of Developmental Medicine, said Michal’s commitment to helping educate the next generation of physician experts in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities cannot be overstated.
“Dr. Mary Michal’s support of our developmental-behavioral pediatrics fellowship program has been enormously beneficial over the last several years. Because of her commitment we were able this year to match two fellows into our program.
“There is a critical shortage of developmental-behavioral pediatricians across the country, so being able to train at least two fellows over the next three years will help us impact the care that children with disabilities and their families receive for decades to come,” he said. “We are so grateful for all she has done for children during her extraordinary career, and for her generosity and foresight in supporting the developmental pediatricians of the future.”